Friday, September 08, 2006

How I Got The Posters

I've been trying to sell off my old Avalon Ballroom posters for a year and a half. I don't really want to see them go, of course, but part of being broke is hacking off pieces of your flesh and offering them to the highest bidder. Anyway, my pal Nels, who's a laywer as well as a poster artist, is a member of a poster-collectors' club, and he's undertaken to make the sales for me. The rarer items went pretty quickly, but then things got stuck. He's offering them still, via Craigslist and maybe even eBay, and with a big meeting of the poster club coming up, he asked me to write an article for their newsletter about how I came to get them.

I knocked it off this afternoon, and thought, hey, I should stick this on the blog. So I will.

Naturally, if I were writing this for a more "serious" outlet, I'd flesh out the story much more, drop a few more names maybe, contextualize a lot of stuff, and so on. But for now, here's what I did. Many years ago, in a far distant land...


In December, 1966, I was an 18-year-old Antioch college student, on their work-study program, finishing up a job in the Christmas card department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the week between Christmas and New Year's. I'd decided to delay my return to school and try to find another job because I'd recently acquired a girlfriend with a fascinating family, and wanted to explore all the cool stuff I was discovering both in her circle and in and around New York City.

But Christmas cards are seasonal, and the job was about to end until next season. My "assistant" was a painter several years older than me, and we'd gotten to be good friends. Meanwhile, my girlfriend wanted to see Judy Collins, who was about to play Town Hall, so I went to buy some tickets to celebrate the end of my employment. The painter thought that as long as I was going to be in town, he'd cook dinner for us, after which we could go see the show. It was already shaping up to be a fine evening when I got to the box office and found a woman I'd worked with a couple of years earlier behind the glass. She was delighted to see me, we talked for a while, and then she sold me some up-close tickets in the press section for the price of a couple of bottom-of-the-line nosebleed seats.

No surprise that it turned out to be a memorable evening, then, but not in the way I'd expected. The dinner was great, some hash was smoked, and we caught a cab downtown to the show. Manhattan in winter was like a movie, and then we were in the concert hall, about six rows from the stage. Tom Rush opened the show, and captivated everyone with a song by some songwriter he'd just discovered named Joni Mitchell, as well as his usual repertoire. The lights came up, and I became aware of a nervous, skinny guy behind me urgently looking around the crowd. He had a manila envelope with a stack of mimeographed magazines in it, and I realized I'd just read about him in Howard Smith's column in the Village Voice, where Smith had started the item by saying "Behind a door in the Village, an 18-year-old ego burns."

"Hey," I said to the guy, "Are you Paul Williams?" "Yeah, why do you want to know?" "Oh, I read about you in the Voice and I thought this Crawdaddy! magazine idea sounded interesting." He stared at me. "You want one?" I took it. "I have something you might like to look at," I continued. "My girlfriend's father got ahold of galleys for a book Bob Dylan has written, which Macmillan's going to publish this spring." He glared at me. "If Bob Dylan had a book coming out, I'd know about it!" he snapped. "Well, he does, and she's got the galleys." "I really do," she said. "It's called Tarantula. You ought to believe him." Paul snatched back the copy of the magazine, with Howlin' Wolf's photograph on the cover, and scrawled an address on 6th Avenue. "Come see me with it. I'm there most of the time."

My Lower East Side apartment had been robbed, and although they got nothing of value (some dirty laundry an ex-roommate wanted me to mail to him, a typewriter that I hated), it was a power move, the neighborhood amphetamine junkies serving notice that they were in our territory. Realizing this, I'd moved out, back to my parents' house in suburban New York. On weekends (my girlfriend was still in high school) I'd go to Princeton to visit her and her family, who seemed to understand what I was up to better than my own family. I was looking for another job, because I had to have one in order not to go back to college -- I was still protected by the 2-S student draft deferment -- and so the Monday after the concert, I took the precious envelope with the Tarantula galleys in it, schlepped to a couple of employment agencies and took typing tests and filled out forms, and then showed up at the Crawdaddy! offices about 3 in the afternoon.

The offices were in a building over a Greek diner (now a pizza place) right at the entrance to the W. 4th Street subway on 6th Avenue, on the second floor in a tiny apartment whose bathtub was filled with bundled magazines. Two IBM Executive electric typewriters stood on a table. Paul snatched the envelope from my hands, sat down and started reading. Another guy, with curly hair, introduced himself as Tim Jurgens, and we talked while Paul read. Finally he looked up and said "I can't believe it! It's the real thing! You have to let me borrow this." "Sorry," I said, "it's not mine to lend." "But you've got to! I've got to show this to Paul Rothschild!" Now, there was a name I recognized: he produced records for Elektra, the legendary folk label which had, among others, Tom Rush and Judy Collins. "Look, here's what I'll do. Let me have this overnight and I'll go to Elektra and make a copy. Then you can take it back to New Jersey. Call your girlfriend and ask her if it's okay." So I did. She was nervous, but if it was just overnight, it was okay. Anyway, we'd both read it (or, rather, she'd read all of it and I'd read bits -- she'd also read Finnegan's Wake, so gibberish was second nature to her) and agreed it was pretty lame. Suddenly Paul had another idea. "Can you type?" Sure I could type: that's all I'd been doing at the employment agencies, so I said so. "Whaddya think, Tim?" Tim shrugged. I had a job.

A month later, we'd moved the office upstairs after putting out the first New York-based issue of Crawdaddy!, with a cover designed by my girlfriend's famous graphic designer dad and an excerpt from an unpublished book by some madman named Richard Meltzer. (The graphic designer, after reading it, took it to his friend Dick Higgins, who had a small avant-garde press in New York, and suddenly Richard had a book out). The new offices were a lot more spacious, having previously been the showroom and offices of Fretted Instruments, the folk instrument shop and instruction studio. I worked there during the week, and spent my weekends in Princeton with my new family.

One day, my girlfriend's father asked me if I'd like to go to San Francisco. "Sure!" I said. Paul had been there the previous year, and he couldn't stop talking about it. "That's good. You're a college student, but you're not in college, so you're free to travel on the half-price fares. I want you to meet some people." So I wound up one afternoon at a cocktail party on the Upper East Side in a multi-story house with a Louise Nevelson sculpture in the living room talking to people who were involved with a magazine called Aspen. Aspen was a little different: it came in a box. Each article was on a different kind of paper, or done as a little book, or as a poster. My girlfriend's father was art-directing the next issue, and they wanted a story about the hippies in San Francisco. I was introduced to a short, dark guy named Steve Schapiro, who worked for Life magazine. He was going to be the photographer. I was handed an envelope with a phenomenal amount of money -- $175, round-trip airfare at half-price -- to get me to San Francisco. I bought a ticket.

The day I was going to leave, I was wrestling my suitcase out of the office when the door to the apartment next door opened up. We didn't really know who lived there, although Paul said it smelled like an opium den (like he should've talked about dope-smells!), but this guy looked amiable enough. "Hi," he said. "I'm Travis. Where ya off to?" "San Francisco." "Got a place to stay?" Damn, I hadn't thought about that, I'd been so eager to go. "Hey, that's okay. Can you remember an address? 1836 Pine. It's the old Dog house. I'm sure they can find you somewhere. It's early out there right now, but I'll call 'em later, and when you land, just take a cab to 1836 Pine."

So I did, and entered an alternate dimension. I hadn't quite understood what Travis had said, but these, indeed, were the folks who had founded the Family Dog, with which I was already familiar. Luria Castell was the earth mother, and there was another woman, a singer, named Lin Hughes, who played her 12-string guitar a lot. There was a resident astrologer/magician, and various other people who came and went. One resident was a guy from Detroit named Larry Miller, who wasn't around. I slept in his bed, in a closet. The group in the house, who called themselves the Mystic Research Foundation, had split with Chet Helms, who still operated the Family Dog, which they'd founded together. There didn't seem to be much bad blood between them, although there were dark mutterings about "selling out" and "going commercial," but mostly everyone seemed concerned about the new society they were building, the groovy possibilities ahead, and they were most gracious about introducing me around as the guy from the magazine in New York who was writing about them.

Naturally, rock politics being what they are, I was introduced to Chet Helms -- but not to that spawn of Satan Bill Graham, who was trying to ruin everything for everyone, although it had to be admitted his dances were pretty cool, too. And so, after interviewing the Cohen brothers at the Psychedelic Shop, and the editor of the San Francisco Oracle, and a couple of Diggers (who of course denied being Diggers), I went to the offices of the Family Dog and talked to Helms, who spoke in a voice so quiet it was hard to believe he was in such an important position. At the end of our talk, he asked me if I liked posters. Sure, I told him, and, after signing me up on the mailing list for post cards announcing each week's dance (and signing up my girlfriend, too -- why not?), he gave me one of each of the posters up to that date. I rolled them up, put them in a tube, and, I believe, checked them with my luggage when I flew back.

I have a lot of memories about that visit: watching (and recording on the newfangled cartridge tape recorder -- cassettes, they were called -- that someone had given me to use) Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin from the vantage point of the light-show booth at the Avalon; meeting her a couple of days later as I walked with Luria down Haight Streeet, and Janis being so happy I'd liked her that she jumped out of the car and kissed me on my cheek; becoming so entranced by San Francisco that I vowed I'd move there some day; buying a koto-like stringed instrument from China called a cheng for practically nothing at Cost Plus; flying back impatient to tell Paul all about it -- and, of course, to tell my girlfriend about the new society that we'd be bringing our kids up in some day.

Of course, there were disappointments ahead. For one thing, the Aspen people dragged their feet, and my long article got reduced to a couple of quotes from Alan Cohen on a poster of an abstract photo Steve Schapiro had shot at the Avalon, an evening that had clearly made a deep impression on him. For another, nobody could stand my Janis Joplin recordings -- she didn't sound like anything on the radio! Most immediately and worst of all, I got back to the Crawdaddy! offices late at night after the cross-country flight to find some woman I'd never seen working there who initially refused to let me stay in my own bed, but relented on the grounds that she'd have to ask Paul -- who had gone on the road somewhere -- who I was, and if I wasn't who I said I was she'd call the cops. I quit the next day, and got ready to go back to school.

But man, with that roll of posters, my dorm room was going to be the coolest one on campus!


William Thirteen said...

a delight... you're right, it would be even better if you fleshed it out and made it feature length...

Bowleserised said...

You moved your blog AND you've been writing up a storm. Sorry I only just realised...

BiB said...

Yes, a flipping good read. I'm sorry I'd missed the move too. Still, have caught back up now.